Suiting Up for Oceanic Health : Environment: Swimwear industry gala raises funds to assist Smithsonian's efforts to protect and preserve the world's oceans.

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The swimwear industry took another dive into environmental activism Saturday night by raising about $100,000 to give to the Smithsonian Institution for an upcoming conference on oceans.

For the second year in a row, Swim Environmental Awareness (SEA) sponsored the black-tie splash, at the Westin Bonaventure Hotel. Last year's beneficiary was the Cousteau Society. SEA focuses its attention on the oceans because, in the words of honorary chair Esther Williams, "What's the use in having a swimsuit if there's no place to swim?"

"I started swimming in Manhattan Beach," said Williams, the star of two-dozen water-related movie extravaganzas. "Now there's so much sewage in the ocean you have to look before you swim. And I'm nearsighted."

The gala, co-chaired by Pam Feltman and Kathy Dupont, was organized to assist the Smithsonian Institution's National Forum on Ocean Awareness, which begins Nov. 19 in Washington, D.C. The three-day conference featuring 50 speakers will address the health of open oceans and marine ecosystems.

"We're hoping to make the oceans the environmental issue of the '90s the way the rain forests were in the '80s," said the Smithsonian's Judith Gradwohl.

Honoree Dr. Thomas Lovejoy, the Smithsonian's assistant secretary for external affairs and ecological adviser to President Bush, thought the tie-in with SEA was perfect. "You can't have a happy swimwear industry," he said, "if people don't feel good about swimming."

The environmental connection also was a clever way to draw together a segment of the garment industry that is notoriously fractious.

"Swimwear is the most secretive, spy-obsessed part of the business," said one guest, who was among the 500 at the gala, which included fabric producers, manufacturers and retail buyers in town for the International Swim and Activewear Market. "As an example, in sportswear you get to come out with lines four times a year. In swimwear, you get one shot. If you miss, you're out of business."

Of course, garment-industry conversation and politics were lost on the guests from the Smithsonian.

But the fact that the gala involved an industry group was seen as a plus by ecologists.

"It's usually the true believers who are involved," said Gradwohl. "This isn't your usual environmental crowd."

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